Pain and power

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When #MeToo suddenly flooded social media with testimonials about sexual harassment, assault and violence, I applauded those who spoke out. Yet, even as I was overwhelmed with a need to support and fiercely affirm those around me, I was confronted with a certain uneasiness that extended beyond my reservations about the mentality of mass movements, representation of such campaigns and even ignorance surrounding the sexual harassment–awareness movement’s inception ten years ago. The torrent of posts filled me with a nebulous discomfort.

I couldn’t identify why until I began reflecting on my own experiences, memories of harassment and assault that I’ve swept under the rug as quickly as they have steadily accumulated over the years. From piano to debate, political functions to conversations with acquaintances, encounters with strangers to those I trusted, these are instances that I do not spend time discussing. When I recall the moments that constitute my identity, they do not come to mind. Yet, reflected in the honest and raw stories of the people around me — mostly women, but also oft-ignored men and queer individuals — I was forced to face how the climate of sexual violence has shaped my daily decisions.

Ironically, I have studied women’s rights movements and sexuality. I read voraciously about rape culture and gender inequalities, and consume op-eds and studies and literature on gender-based and sexual violence. With an understanding of how sex, gender and sexuality play into oppressive power dynamics, I advocate for survivors and women in so many spaces, defend the experiences of others around me and celebrate their bravery and authenticity with the fullest conviction. However, the culture I’ve internalized means that writing “me too” makes me feel either that I have no control over harassment and assault, which is scary, or that I hold responsibility for the situations I’ve encountered, which is worse.

This was and is still difficult for me, because I define myself as a strong, assertive woman. In the face of unfairness I have clung to resilience; I want to believe that I have the self-determination to control my own narrative and have the upper hand. I don’t want to sound like I’m whining, or focusing on the little things, or acting hysterically. I don’t want to sound like I’m weak, and, like many around me, I have implicitly linked these experiences with victimhood cast as weakness.

When I finally did write about my experiences, it was a bid for both me and others to associate strength with speaking truth to disempowering experiences, to reconcile the “me” who seeks positions of influence with the “me” in “me too.” Amidst well-intentioned people who dismiss harassment and men who hesitate to criticize friends for predatory behavior, amidst women who quietly succumb to blaming themselves and those ashamed of their experiences, I wanted to affirm that you can be strong and thick-skinned, yet still say “me too.” I wanted my experiences to discredit how we characterize powerful women and what we expect strength to look like.

At the same time, however, I wrote with a certain anxiety about the way I depicted my experiences and how they would be consumed. I’m a believer that sharing our stories can elicit transformative empathy, but it was with a sinking feeling that I wondered whether I’d raise awareness or attract pity. I felt as if I’d submitted scenes into a long, continuous documentary of #MeToo experiences, where the various dimensions of survivors’ memories had been reduced to a performance of pain in an exhausting bid for change. I wondered about the actual impact of writing and speaking out; I questioned using my experiences as a place of implied advocacy.

The past week of reading, reflecting and writing about scenarios of sexual harassment and assault has been emotionally draining for both those who have withheld and those who have shared their stories. Although I wish otherwise, the only way for nonsurvivors to understand the lived experiences of others is through hearing about them. #MeToo has brought about a bittersweet mix of acknowledgement and pain, so I hope that we see this pain as power and truly shift the way we think about victims and aggressors. Don’t let this be a pointless show.

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